On Dropping Dead

I’ve been reading a lot of medieval history recently in preparation to teach about medieval Christian Europe this term. What’s mostly struck me so far is how depressingly familiar it seems. There are whole books to be written (perhaps there already have been) about the continuities between the medieval invention of heretics and witches in order that they might be persecuted and the contemporary War on Terror; about the commonalities between the much-feared figure of the wandering Jews, rootless in society because society uprooted them and the contemporary figure of the migrant; about the many and various ways in which the European past is not nearly such a foreign country as we’d like to believe.

One way, though, that things really do seem to have changed between then and now is the role of death in shaping the course of historical events. One of the books I’ve been reading is F. Donald Logan’s “A History of the Church in the Middle Ages”, and at times it seems like it’s basically an account of the ways in which history was formed by the fact that somebody – sometimes several people – died at a crucial moment.

For example, in 867 there was almost a schism between the Eastern and Western Churches: the Western Pope Nicholas I and the Eastern Patriarch Photius had both excommunicated one another, which seems like it would be a fatal blow to Christian unity. But then the Byzantine emperor was assassinated, and the new emperor deposed Photius; even more crucially, Pope Nicholas died before he found out either that he’d been condemned by Photius or that the emperor was dead; and so the split didn’t finally happen for another couple of centuries.

Not long afterwards, Pope Formosus got, ahem, encouraged by the local nobility to recrown the local Duke Wido as emperor, and his son as co-emperor along with him. Formosus tried to relieve some of the political pressure that was being brought to bear on him by inviting Arnulf, the Carolingian king, to invade Italy, but Arnulf got ill and had to go home, then Wido died, leaving the empire officially in the hands of his son but in practice in the hands of his former wife. She tried to defend herself from Arnulf’s second attempt at an invasion, but failed. So Formosus crowned Arnulf the new Roman Emperor, except then Arnulf died on his way home; and then Formosus died (and then, just for fun, a subsequent pope dug up his decaying body, put it on trial, defrocked it, threw it in a common grave, where it was dug up by grave robbers, then thrown in the river Tiber, which flooded, subsequent to which the body ended up back on land, was secretly buried, then exhumed by a subsequent pope who dug it up again, re-robed it, and put it back in its original tomb. For some reason, there were no more popes called Formosus): all of his scheming with Arnulf came to nothing.

In 1046 Henry III marched on Rome to instigate papal reform, kicked out three popes who were arguing over who was the real pope, and installed a new pope – Benedict IX – to transform the papacy. This pope just about managed to crown Henry emperor, but died after ten months; and then the next pope, Damasus II, died after twenty-three days in office; only with the third pope, Leo IX, did anything much get done.

In 1439, the Eastern and Western churches came within a whisker of reunification: they’d managed to resolve all of their major disputes (the solution to the problem of the filioque, charmingly, was that each side got their formulae from their saints, and that saints couldn’t possibly be propagating contradictory formulae, so the two sides must in fact be saying exactly the same thing just in different words; ain’t patristic authority a marvellous thing?). Anyway, they’d gotten so close to agreement and reunion that they declared a civic holiday, had a massive party, sat important people on massive thrones and read a bull of union. Everyone started to fall into line; except that then King Albert, the king of Germany died all of a sudden, leading to a struggle over who would succeed him. The pope had promised, as part of the reunification negotiations, to send some military aid to help the Greeks fight the Turks, but the wrangling in Germany meant he couldn’t do that. Then, when the Greek delegation got home, they discovered that Emperor John VIII’s wife had died while they were away, and the emperor spent six months in such deep mourning that he lost the opportunity to enforce the new union of the church. And so the consensus fell apart and the Eastern and Western churches remain disunited.

I can’t think of any contemporary parallels, where the course of history has been shaped by people just …dying, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, without being assassinated (I’m probably missing some and look forward to you correcting me in the comments). Where death plays a different role for us, perhaps, is in those regimes held together around a single figure who lives far longer than anyone expected them too, in the midst of slowly declining health: the papacy of John Paul II, Cuba under Castro, Venezuela under Chavez. Medieval death happens with a bang; ours, with a whimper.

14 thoughts on “On Dropping Dead

  1. Not exactly changing the course of history, but certainly of Anglo philosophy: during the war years Oxford philosophy saw an incredible collection of women philosophers making up the faculty, publishing now-classic philosophical texts, abnd generally being successful and respected scholars. It’s not really surprising that we see this blip in the almost entirely white male demographic of the faculty and the discipline when all the men were out at war being killed.

    Makes you think that perhaps the only way to achieve true sex and gender representation in that discipline (and probably all others) is just to kill most men.

  2. Actually, this is just a reflection of how the respective ages view politics differently. What a medieval historian is usually trying to do in his writing is encourage virtue or ability amongst politically relevant individuals of his time and afterwards. But medievals of course also knew quite well about modern abstractions like the economy, or political factions, or ideologies and so forth. But what they (usually) try to do is show how individuals can manipulate those types of realities to achieve some good.

    Us moderns tend to want to tell ourselves our histories in a way that makes the demos – the vast crowd of the people – most important as a giant group, not as individuals. We tend to see the individual as overwhelmed by these huge abstractions. That’s why we write all these histories of the 1950s, for instance, where the politics of the time were solely driven by some level understanding of the economics of the time. But a medieval would counter by noting how absolutely critical key individuals were to the economics of the time. For instance, that FDR had such great charm and great rhetorical ability partially made the economics of the 1950s possible. That critical individual economists of the 1920s and 1930s were politically moderate and prudent in their theorizing also made the economics of the 1950s possible (and thus they were in the right position to assist FDR when he needed those individuals). And so on. Moderns are not necessarily right in interpreting history the way we do.

    A more recent example is how key individuals changed the course of economic policy during the early moments of the Great Recession in 2006-2008. Timothy Geithner was probably one of the best choices for Treasury Secretary available at that moment. But that’s because of a lot of individual choices that made a certain type of economic theory essentially un-criticizable (is that a word?) for about a period of thirty years – so there wasn’t really anybody around who could have been a plausible substitute for Geithner and who would have acted differently.

  3. Any comment that begins with ‘Actually,….’ immediately rings alarm bells for me. And those bells were proven to be justified in just the next sentence: “What a medieval historian is usually trying to do in his writing…”

    I’m quite certain not all medieval historians are men. In fact I know this for a fact because I live with one, and she is not a man.

    Kudos for being the first man to patronise Dr Rose on this particular post.

  4. Or when somebody writes “medieval historians” they mean historians who lived in the Middle Ages. Not all of whom were men, but there were relatively few female historians. I did not remember Hrotsvitha and other female historians at that moment. I apologize.

  5. I guess I’m struggling to see what your point was, then. I wasn’t making an argument about the relative importance of individuals and social structures in the two periods, but about the difference between an era where individuals were quite likely to die suddenly and an era where that doesn’t happen so often.

  6. Funny old thing the individual in modernity. You could read a dozen account of what modernity means and many of them would say that the sovereign individual was key. But apparently this is more common in the Middle Ages? Okay.

    Which is a circulatory way of saying I am also struggling to see the point here in reference to the post.

  7. Allyn Abbott Young rather randomly died of flu allowing Lionel Robbins to become head of the London School of Economics in 1929. This allowed him to bring Hayek to the UK and kick off proto-neoliberalism being taken seriously in the UK academy.

    As drive-by modern instance.

  8. BB’s “actually” and his subsequent doubling-down are breathtaking in their perfection of asshat mansplaining. Well done, old chap, well done.

    Not consequential on the order of world history, but Jack Layton, maybe.

  9. I know there’s one assassination in the list I gave but it happened concurrently with an unexpected natural death; I don’t think my argument really holds at all if you include murders.

  10. Norman Cohn, Raoul Vaneigem, Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, Carl Schmitt, and Ernst Kantorowicz have already written books about Medieval theology, outlaws, migrants and terrorists. The connection is the homo sacer, the hermetic figure who is alive and dead, at the same time. Also explained by Carl Kerenyi in Religion of the Greeks and Romans.

  11. Really enjoyed reading this and been thinking about it quite a bit. As bit of a curio, I’m reminded of Enrico Berlinguer, ‘Italian Communism’s answer to the Pope’, who literally dropped dead suffering a stroke (I think) while giving a speech; while the fate of Eurocommunism seems to have been sealed by wider fall of Communism, it’d be hard to shake the idea that the demise of the PCI wasn’t to some extent greatly hastened by his passing, at least spiritually: sure enough people on here will correct me on that in any case. Also the The 2010 Polish air crash which killed a chunk of the top layer of Polish government and civil service. Anyway, to move on from listing people who have died in office there’s a few things you got me considering re. death and (bio?)power :

    Firstly the role of pathogenic disease: this connects to some really interesting questions about the history of disease, and mass disease, politics, and the critique of classical neorealist International relations scholars for overlooking the role of illness and disease. For instance,The West African Ebola outbreak still left a lot of IR scholars scrambling to talk about key actors suddenly falling sick and dying, and also many more conservative figures desperately trying :not: to talk about the colonial-necropolitical origins of the crisis.

    There’s something revealing about why transmittable disease is still such a source of anxiety for social elites: it communises biology to some extent (I’ve not read him but I gather Espositos stuff on community and immunity probably speaks to this), and negates mythologies of evolutionary-biological or cosmic superiority powerful actors and wealthy classes have about themselves. See the folk song ‘Death and the Lady’, or Coriolanus response to his rejection in the famous Scene III outburst: “As the dead carcasses of unburied men/That do corrupt my air: I banish you”.

    Secondly, and this connects to the first, the kinds of and surveillance you need to avoid your leaders dropping dead and sparking constant crisis. For instance there’s some suggestion that parish records of baptisms, marriages, and burials were in one sense a response to concern about disease outbreaks sparked by bubonic plague: unburied bodies were a disease risk, and the record could show when there was an outbreak of disease so the rich and powerful could skip town. But obviously records can also provide statistical and local data to surveil for forms of religious-political dissent (in England, records were brought in by Thomas Cromwell): so-and-so didn’t have their kid baptised? Suspicious.

    The third thing is is simple: the problem of long term illness. Depending on how you define it I wonder if you remove politicians who have died from relatively long-term terminal illnesses from the equation, how big the difference would be, especially as modern palliative care provides chances for political institutions to prepare a transfer of power? There’s probably a good study to be done in the decisions of political leaders in positions of power who are dying of long term illness but I suspect there’d be less material the earlier you go in European history.

    Lastly the kinds of political tactics this prevalence of sickness and sudden death facilitates: not just exploiting deaths, but also arranging them: It’s much harder to disguise poisoning and assassinations and the like when you have doctors on hand and politicians ‘dropping dead’ isn’t a common occurrence. Nowadays almost any death in office is treated as the source of conspiracy even when it’s evidently not.

    Then again with the Machiavelli, or perhaps Lord Vetinari, hat on, I imagine there are two schools of thought here: the most successful poisoner of the age is the one who is never discovered and just looks like a master tactician-opportunist OR the most successful poisoner is the one :everyone knows: poisons people but gets away with it, so you’d better not cross them.

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